Then and Now

Then and Now

My family moved to Broad Bay from Gore in 1962.  My parents rejected a hilltop property above Port Chalmers when they noticed how much moss and fern clung to the macrocarpa trees along the roadside.  The other place up for sale was a small farm in Glen Road in Broad Bay, always known simply as ‘The Glen’ (now Bacon Street).  I remember our first visit to the warmer, tranquil valley, and a small gardenless house where an old couple, the Wintons, huddled in front of the coal range.  So, at age six, the youngest of seven boys and three girls plus two half-siblings, I went to live in a home with room to roam outdoors, but rather cramped inside and without electricity for the first few months.  The ambience of evenings spent with candles, kerosene light and the gentle hiss of the Tilley lamp is a lasting memory.  Dad and the older boys played card games and what seemed to me a cut-throat game of cribbage.

When we moved to Broad Bay, the age of the ‘lifestyle block’ had not arrived and there were few economic small holdings left, so it required much hard work and ingenuity to support us from our 40 acres. While many Peninsula dairy farmers gave up, our neighbour Jimmy Smith kept milking because he supplied milk to the Cadbury chocolate factory. 

Dad worked as the grader driver for the Peninsula County Council, based at the yard by the playground in Portobello, but his plan was to develop The Glen into a poultry farm.   Our hens from Gore were put into a converted farm shed while another shed, originally used for bales of hay and tack, was dragged closer to the house, fitted out with a lining of unpainted pinex sheets and used as the boys’ bunk room, with three single beds and a four-bed bunk.  Within a year, another baby boy arrived: Doug, our only Broad-Bay-born family member.

The farm came with a few sheep and a majestic Clydesdale draught house named Bell. Although she was friendly and quiet, she proved impossible to work with the sledge (the standard way to carry anything on hilly land). Bell was even worse with the dray and the other farm implements.  The place was well set up for horse-drawn machinery and harness. 

In The Glen we had a two-bail byre for hand milking and a tiny red brick dairy with a hand-cranked separator for taking off cream.  We soon had a friendly Jersey cow to provide the house with milk, cream and hand-made butter.  I don’t remember her name, but as a novice I remember the shock of having her kick over my half-full pail of milk because I had not tied back her leg properly.

Because Dad had driven roading machines for more than 30 years and had no experience with working horses, Bell was replaced by an ageing David Brown petrol tractor after the first paddock had been worked with the 1927 Plymouth family car.  I was always bemused by the car’s wooden spoke wheels. This car survived beyond its natural span of years because all of us kids could be crammed into it; indeed, I remember us all making two journeys to Christchurch in the mid-1960s.

Eventually we began to catch up with the times and electricity reached the house, but I remember my parents’ frustration with the notoriously long time it took to get a telephone connection.

Thanks to lobbying by a member of the school board, we four primary age chidren were sent to Portobello School, a considerable walking distance for me at six.  When we first started, somehow Dad managed to take us in the car before he went to drive the grader.  Perhaps we got to school very early in the morning.  Many times, as we were walking to school, Jimmy Smith would pull up to give us a ride in his old hand-painted red Chev pickup truck, having already done his morning milking.  Since the primer class ended an hour before the other classes, I had to take care not to lose the penny-halfpenny fare so I could catch the red Peninsula Services bus home to Broad Bay. 

With no money to spare, Dad went along to a row of small derelict cottages and scavenged several metal bed ends to use as farm gates.  Many years later I learned that these little shacks were the remains of the infamous Isaac Town that ‘women of ill repute’ had occupied some years earlier.  One, named Lilian, I remember seeing sometimes in the village.  She evidently suffered from mental distress in her later years.

By the time I was eight or nine the farm had changed, with many more laying hens and eggs being sold from the house.  Milk was delivered in glass pint bottles and the house cow had been replaced by a few white Saanen milking goats. Intolerance to cows’ milk was recognised and goats’ milk could be a substitute at a premium price.  Although we had goats for several years, which were a joy to milk, there was no method to market or package their milk.  However, my two next older sisters and I attained some fame when we took goat kids to the A&P show at the Portobello Domain and had our photo in the ODT with the goat kids standing on our backs as we crouched on hands and knees.

Unfortunately, scavenged bedheads and Taranaki gates were no challenge to the goats, and they made no impression on the ever-spreading patches of gorse on our little hill block, so eventually they had to go, leaving the hill to the sheep.  The number of laying hens increased to over 1,000 and, to his great relief, Dad gave up the grader to be self-employed as he had long-wanted.  Poultry farming is an intensive business and sheds were built by family members from new and recycled materials.  An early one was an old boat shed that had been owned by a Doctor Rawnsley of Macandrew Bay.  It was taken to pieces and transported in dodgy fashion on a trailer, then reassembled at home. 

Once a year, chook manure had to be cleared from under the perches, in the heat of summer, by forking it into a trailer to be spread on the paddocks — four to six loads in all.  Another rather skilled job was making home-made mash by emptying 12 sacks of various grain products into a heap on the concrete floor of the open front shed, and mixing them by shovelling them into another pile, then back again.  I would do this in the calm of early morning to avoid being covered with the itching dust likely to be blown up later in the day.  Also early some mornings I would walk the nearby hills to pick mushrooms that I could sell for 20 cents per pound to customers who came to buy eggs and anything else Dad grew to sell.

We had no family holidays away from home apart from two journeys to Christchurch, one to stay with Dad’s brother and another time with his sister.  But I do recall a day excursion to Waiwera South on a rail car with Mum to visit her brothers on their family farm.   Mum appeared to work endlessly, though I dare say not tirelessly.  If she had the chance she would slip away for an hour in the weekend afternoons for a nap with tea and a book.  Every day Mum would do the afternoon egg collection, filling three or four 20-litre buckets and, when health regulations were introducted in the 1970s, she and I would put the day’s collection through a cleaning machine with a belt of sandpaper on foam rubber blocks.  This took about two hours every night, after the tea dishes were washed, in a little open shed, rain, hail or shine.

Another night-time job was moving hens from shed to shed as young pullets came into lay and older hens came to their end.  Being night-blind makes them easy to pick up from their perch, held upside down by the legs.  Dad and I would take an hour or so to restock an empty shed — a pleasant enough job on a calm starry night.

Some effort was put into making Christmas an occasion, and those of us still at home looked forward to older siblings coming home for a few days, especially the musterers, as often they had to bring their dog teams which made for a pretty lively time.  An emormous Christmas dinner with several desserts and bottles of fizzy drink would be followed by cricket in ‘the cow paddock’.

My primary school years were a time freedom, with early morning wanders up into the valleys of Smith’s Creek, climbing the Cone, and climbing trees.  We only rarely entered the little block of forest remnant on our own hill, usually to bring down the sheep, although I sometimes picked long white tresses of white clematis to give to Mum.  I spent a lot of time on my own, school friends in Portobello being a bit far away for casual play, and there was little opportunity to get to know the Broad Bay kids.

As it turned out, my own family and I took over the 12-acre hillside block, along with its patch of uncleared forest.  Here we lived in the crib perched prominently at the top of Frances Street.  Originally it was three rooms (with an outhouse under the few pines nearby).  I believe it was built by a woman.  It had a small art deco detail over the door to the tar-pitch deck.  That, a flat roof and jazzy blue and red lino dated it somewhere between pre-WW2 and mid-1950s.

Later it had a bathroom attached, a wash-house, toilet under the deck and enlarged main bedroom.  This is where our three primary-age children and a newborn lived for more than two years while I, helped by local friends, built the bigger house up behind while also working as a full-time labourer.

Alf outside the house he built at the top of Frances Street helped by local friends

I found solace spending time in the few parts of our place not inhabited by gorse.  Although I always knew something of native plants, I had no appreciation of the Otago Peninsula’s natural ecosystem.  But chance conversations and an ember of curiosity led me to connect first with the STOP (Save the Otago Peninsula) group and later the Otago Botanical Society.  

A major focus of my life now is toward the protection of native species.  This has taken my life though 180 degrees from the period when clearance of native forest and scrub was encouraged.  It was also heavily subsidised with government money; my father had his first and only helicopter ride in what looked like a machine salvaged from the Korean War, to spray the gorse on our 40-acre farm, although its effectiveness was highly questionable.

My 12-acre block now has the protection of a QEII Covenant, which means planting tree species that have none or few adults to spread seed naturally, and doing animal pest control for protection of the increasing native biodiversity.

My father, when talking about NZ animals, would mention the rare and distinct velvet worm or peripatus.  Ten years after he died, I discovered that peripatus are living on our place.  I wonder what he would have made of that?

By Alf Webb

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